Hot Wax Album Reviews by the ROCK DOCTOR November 15, 2021

AN HONEST EFFORT Matt Patershuk (Black Hen) *****+

Matt Patershuk’s grandpa used to say “God loves a trier”, meaning there is worth and value in trying. The act of trying is redemptive, despite the outcome. That thought is the central theme around which Patershuk wraps An Honest Effort, a sparse and engrossing brace of intimate stories that feel like dusty old friends come by for a visit. Matt and his wife live near La Glace, Alberta; I should’ve known this was a prairie record.

As it says on Matt’s website, “you’ll find stories on this album about folks trying. In the face of unfavorable odds, with seemingly certain unfavorable outcomes, they give it a good go. Results vary, but they are all better off for the attempt.” He’s got talented people in the studio like producer/ guitarist Steve Dawson, “fine musicians making good sounds” like the bio says. Delicate and nuanced performances surround Matt and his warm and friendly voice but what really sets An Honest Effort apart is Patershuk’s lyrics; not just the stories he tells, but the way he puts the words together. My favorite example is the first part of Shane MacGowan, a tune about the singer for The Pogues, famous for his rotten teeth; “Shane MacGowan’s brand new teeth/ they snap right in his head each morning before he eats/ they kind of look like they don’t belong/ he says they get in the way when he tries to sing his old songs.” You gotta love a guy that writes like that.

Is this folk? Alt-Country? Roots music? Ultimately such labels are unimportant though I expect some of these numbers would’ve felt at home on the soundtracks for Oh Brother Where Art Thou and perhaps even Cold Mountain. There are elements of all those things at play in these tracks as Matt, Steve and the other musicians paint musical pictures that are a great counterpoint to the lyrics. Patershuk looks at things a little… differently. Turn The Radio Up is about life together in middle age, and The 2nd Law Of Thermodynamics is about entropy, the certainty that objects in the universe tend toward disorder… not exactly your standard lyrical themes. That Matt is so comfortable in areas like this is part of his charm.

An Honest Effort is not everybody’s cup of tea; it’s quite laid back and the way he looks at life, as Brock Zeman does, is unusual. Engaging stories, well told that make you feel connected and insignificant at the same time- wonderful stuff.

BEST TRACKS: Shane MacGowan, Jupiter The Flying Horse, The 2nd Law Of Thermodynamics

THE RARE REPRISE SINGLES Trini Lopez (Omnivore Recordings) *****

If you grew up in the 60’s as I did, chances are you’re somewhat familiar with the Latin pop/rock sounds of Trini Lopez. He was with Reprise from 1962 to 1970, during which he released 20 albums plus several non-LP A and B sides. Omnivore has gathered most of those for The Rare Reprise Singles, many available here on CD for the first time. This disc is yet another example of music being the most reliable form of time travel.

Born in Dallas, Lopez formed his first band, The Big Beats, who played Mexican folk songs, R&B hits and rock ‘n’ roll favorites. While playing the local club scene Trini met Buddy Holly, who referred him to his producer Norman Petty. Though he scored them a record deal Petty wanted them to be an instrumental band… Lopez wasn’t interested in that style of music and soon left the group. Relocating to LA he developed a considerable following which caught the attention of Don Costa who brought his Reprise Records boss, Frank Sinatra, to a gig at PJ’s and he was signed not long after. His first album for the label, Trini Lopez At PJ’s, reached #2 on the Billboard charts and his version of Pete Seeger’s If I Had A Hammer was a big hit. This established Trini Lopez as one of the first Latin acts to cross over to the mainstream pop charts.

Listening to The Rare Reprise Singles over the last few weeks has been an act of pure discovery. When I was a kid I remember my parents having Trini’s albums in the house so his sound is instantly familiar but most of these A and B sides, 24 in all, I’m hearing for the first time. It rightly has the feel of the 60’s, and there is a joy in his playing and singing style that recalls the sunniest part of that decade. If Quentin Tarantino hasn’t used Trini’s stuff on any of his movie soundtracks, he should have.

The Rare Reprise Singles packaging includes photos from Trini’s career with the label, plus liner notes from former Warner Bros. writer gene Sculatti. From those notes; “Trini’s post-reprise period took him to a variety of labels where he continued to put out singles through the early 90’s. But he never experienced the artistic or commercial success he enjoyed at Reprise. As those first hits about a tart fruit and a carpenter’s tool and this compilation prove, his lively, affable recordings remain an indelible signature of that most vibrant of pop music epochs.” I’ve enjoyed listening to The Rare Reprise Singles so much, the moment I’m done writing this review I’m opening my I Tunes to buy Trini’s Greatest Hits; it’s only $5.99.

Trini Lopez died from Covid 19 complications in Palm Springs, in August 2020.

BEST TRACKS: A-Mer-I-Ca, The Ballad Of The Dirty Dozen (Trini was in the movie), Pretty Little Girl

VOYAGE Abba (Universal) ***

Normally, the thought of buying an Abba album would never cross my mind; after all I have their greatest hits, and isn’t that enough? But in recent years my wife and I have enjoyed both of the Mama Mia! films so much I thought “what the hell.” What started out as a couple of new songs for their impending residency at a purpose-built arena in London where the group will perform as ‘Abba-tars’ with a live band as motion-captured renderings of their 1978 former selves, has turned into Voyage- their first album of new material in 40 years. Abba has made themselves a tough act to follow.

It was only a matter of time before these Swedish superstars were coaxed back into some sort of action. Their last album was 1981’s The Visitors… in the meantime the success of the Abba: Gold compilation in ’92 (I have it, of course) prompted new interest in the band, and in Y2K they reportedly turned down an offer of A BILLION DOLLARS to perform again. Still, placement of their songs in movies plus the two aforementioned Mama Mia flicks meant that something would give, sooner or later. It HAD to.

Voyage is 10 new songs written by Abba mainstays Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulaveus. “I don’t know of anybody who’s done it” Bjorn said to Apple Music of releasing an album of new music 40 years after the last one. Certainly the odds are against it; two divorced couples making music together again after all these years has no historical precedent. “I constantly have those moments when I think ‘how the hell did this all happen?’ ” Bjorn marvels. “Why is it that suddenly on TikTok two million people are following what we’re doing? It’s weird- it’s all weird.”

After all that, how does Voyage hold up as an album? Not terribly well, as it turns out. The production is sparkling and the vocal harmonies take you right back to the 70’s and 80’s again, but there’s nothing here that can stand up to almost any song you might pick from Abba: Gold. It’s well produced pop music caught in a time warp and perhaps overly sentimental- but that’s Abba. A couple of the songs, like Ode To Freedom which closes out the record, contain melodic remnants of Abba’s past, but ultimately it’s not enough to keep this afloat. Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-frid Lyngstad sound as good as they ever have, but while I understand the creative urge to make one final album, perhaps Bjorn and Benny should’ve stuck with doing just a couple of new songs for the new show (set to debut next May, I think) instead. I like Voyage, it’s just not particularly great.

BEST TRACKS: Little Things, Don’t Shut Me Down, I Still Have Faith In You

REST IN BLUE Gerry Rafferty (Parlophone/ Metanoia Music) *****

A decade after dying from organ failure, this Scottish singer and guitarist has released a new album. Rest In Blue was compiled, according to a review on the website, from uncompleted demos by Rafferty’s daughter Martha, who stripped back the arrangements to highlight her father’s voice. A former band mate from his early days, comedian Billy Connelly, remarks that “I’ve never heard Gerry sing so well.”

I have a soft spot in my heart for Gerry Rafferty; Night Owl and City To City are amongst my favorite records, and I consider his signature hit Baker Street to be something of a personal theme song. The record that became Rest In Blue was started in 2006, but was still uncompleted at the time of his death in 2011. Truth be told, this isn’t exactly the album Gerry had in mind either, as it apparently contains material from throughout his career with some songs supposedly dating back to 1970. That said, it sounds like an album that was intended- full marks to Martha for the stylistic and sonic unity that she insisted on for her father’s final statement.

Alongside Rafferty’s original tunes, Rest In Blue includes remakes, like a decent version of Steeler’s Wheel (an old band with Joe Egan)’s Stuck In The Middle With You and Richard & Linda Thompson’s It’s Just the Motion, plus the traditional numbers Dirty Old Town and Wild Mountain Thyme. The way the songs work together and play off each other and the way it sounds overall makes it feel as if Gerry himself was calling the shots. Apparently layers of synths were erased from the tapes; had they been included Rest In Blue may have ended up feeling like a sad relic. As it as is, as I’m listening to it on the stereo, it’s as vital and fresh as you could want it to be.

The most creative spirits are the restless ones; a lifetime of heavy drinking finally caught up with Gerry when he died of multiple organ failure. Life ends for us all sooner or later, and perhaps the miracle is that we ever lived at all. Gerry Rafferty certainly did, on his own terms, leaving behind 11 albums including this one and Life Goes On, released just over a year before his passing. As final statements go, Rest In Blue is a fitting one for a world that should consider itself lucky that he was ever here. It ends with a laugh; literally.

BEST TRACKS: Still In Denial, Wild Mountain Thyme, Lost Highway

ALL IN THE BLUES Willie Jackson (independent) ****+

One doesn’t often go to the blues to be shown a good time, but that’s exactly what’s going on here. All In The Blues is full to the brim with phat musicianship, clever lyrics plus a wink and a smile as it looks at life and relationships. This is a good one.

All In The Blues is big, rubbery, juicy grooves that you can ride all day long. Producer Eric Winbush gives this album a great sound with plenty of walking bass lines to keep things moving, and the other instruments are given plenty of room to breathe, though I would’ve liked a little more “thwack!” on the snare drum. Willie Jackson has a robust singing voice that suits the material well, and the chick background singers that show up in the choruses make for lively call and response exchanges.

Like so many blues musicians Jackson, a native of Savannah, Georgia came to music through the church as a young lad, often playing drums and singing in the choir. He’s always been a prolific songwriter, supporting his family that way. In 2009 a tragic accident ended his previous career on the railroad and he used music to pull himself back up, writing songs and learning bass guitar. His music combines clever and occasionally hilarious lyrics with the rhythms of Southern blues and, if you give All In The Blues a spin, I’ll bet my Christmas budget that you’ll find it irresistible.

Rather than just a blend of songs about love or relationships gone wrong- not that there’s anything wrong with that- Willie approaches his blues with a twinkle in his eye and a smirk at the corner of his lips. When you listen to songs like I’m Your Landlord, The Whole Book Is Wet or Beautiful Disease you’ll really appreciate how this guy peeks around corners. His voice is a rich baritone with a rock n roll vibrato that just sort of envelopes you as you’re drawn helplessly in to whatever yarn Jackson is spinning. It’s even more fun than his Chosen By The Blues EP of just a couple of years ago.

All things considered, All In The Blues is one hell of a record and a good time to boot.

BEST TRACKS: I’m Your Landlord, Beautiful Disease, Sticky Hand Blues

PRINTERS ALLEY Stacy Mitchart (independent) *****

Former Cincinnati bluesman Stacy Mitchart has called Nashville home for a couple of decades now. Printers Alley, a mix of blues and New Orleans stone soul grooves, commemorates his 24 year career in fine, life-affirming let-the-good-times-roll style.

The Stacy Mitchart Band is the house band at Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar in the Printers Alley district of Nashville, hence the name of the disc. “I wanted this album to reflect how much Nashville and Printers Alley has meant to me, my family and my band” Stacy says. His band’s residency was a bit of an eye opener for him. “Very quickly, because there are so many tourists in Nashville, I realized I was seeing different people in the audience from all over the world every night” he observes. “Because this is Music City, they were really coming to listen. Our sound is different, and we bring a lot of energy to the stage.” Two decades in, he obviously still enjoys the gig; he still gets to play 200 of his annual shows without having to leave home.

Printers Alley is a love letter, a generous helping of 15 songs, to the international fan base that has seen his band play at Bourbon Street Blues and on stages in 8 other countries. “In keeping with the Printers Alley theme, I have gone back and chosen several previously recorded songs that speak to the amazing crowds and moments I’ve shared on stage during my time in Printers Alley” Mitchart notes. This disc is my first taste of Stacy and his blues n boogie gumbo, and I have no problem seeing and hearing why his audiences have been so enthusiastic.

As a singer Stacy’s voice has a gruff, likeable quality, sort of a mix between John Fogerty and Joe Cocker. Though I have no notes on the actual recording of Printers Alley it has a ‘live off the floor’ energy to it, the sound of musicians vibing off of each other’s playing, something I enjoy immensely. “I’m more comfortable on stage entertaining than I am in my own living room” Stacy observes, “I’ve spent my whole life there. I feel like the stripped down approach of this new album lets other people get inside my music almost as deep as I do every night when I’m on stage.” Should I ever be lucky enough to find myself in Nasvhille, one of the first things I’m going to do is find the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar and catch myself a Stacy Mitchart show. This is excellent.

BEST TRACKS: I Might Be Your Husband, The Only Thing Missing, Brand New Same Old Blues


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